Friday, September 05, 2008

The World of Gateway

This was a new junior high school.  In fact, it wasn't even finished.  The gym wasn't quite done, the auditorium a work in progress, everything was new and half done and odd.  But we were all there.  Disgorged from our buses and thrown together.  Several hundred students from four districts with little in common.  Westville and National Park were largely working class, factory towns.  Wenonah and Woodbury Heights more middle class.  There were points where we all intersected and points where we veered widely apart.
I've been thinking about this first year for a while now.  In part because it was a huge leap in my life and in part because I had to confront things I'd never had to confront before.  No one knew me here.  No one knew many many people.  New friendships would be formed and old ones changed.  
But for me the hardest part of seventh grade was going to my locker.  Each day when I went to my locker a kid who I will leave nameless would confront me and assault me.  We're talking punches and insults and general bullying.  In Wenonah I'd feel comfortable dealing with this outside of the school but here there was no outside of the school.  I was taught not to behave badly in school and fighting would be definitely a bad thing.  I took my licks.  I took punches to the stomach and arms and insults every day at the beginning and every day at the end.  It was a bad, bad experience.
One of the boys who bullied me was in my gym class.  Our gym class instructor was a man named Chuck Williamson.  Mr. Williamson.  Old school.  Not a man prone to sympathy.  Towards the end of the year we were playing softball at one of the newly completed ball fields and I was playing first base.  The boy who bullied me stole second and I threw the ball hard to second.  It drilled him dead center in the back.  He turned and he and his lackey chased me for a good ten minutes before Mr. Williamson put a stop to it.  Ten minutes.  It didn't help my self esteem and it didn't make me a man.  It made me a scared little rabbit running from a kid who'd flunked two grades and had two feet and fifty pounds on me.  This was not fun.
The other part that was not fun was losing my friends.
This is harder.  We continued to engage in play after school in Wenonah but in school they had new friends, cooler friends.  The gap grew larger and larger.  It would close in later years but it felt weird and was painful.  I came to understand that growing up wasn't just about knowing new things but about losing old things.  I've never been good at that and it always hurt.  
The funny part is that all of us felt this way.  Even the kids that bullied us.  We were all in the same strange boat.  Unmoored from our safe little towns.  Our rituals.  Our games.  We invented new ones.  Some nasty, some joyful, some stupid.  But nonetheless we were on our own in this creation.  There was no one there to tell us how it would be.  No rules.  No guides.  Just knucleheads set loose.  Bullies and bullied.  Cool and uncool.  Stupid and smart.  Ugly and beautiful.  And at the end of the day some Boy Scout furling the flag.  Uncoolest of the uncool.  A volunteer to stupidity.  
Next post: the geography of Gateway


Jim Maddox said...

Our safe comfortable world was shattered, and we weren't prepared for it. I was a rat in a maze, avoiding those people were intimidating, trying my best to seek out someone who may have the same interests.
Gym class was a stone nightmare, with Mr. Williamson conducting close order military drill, treating us like marines in boot camp. In gym class you could tell who the bullies were, the wise guys and the rest of us just hoping to survive.
My grades didn't suffer, but my insecurities grew.

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